Newspaper Literary Criticism
THE newspaper critic of books has a very different office to perform from that of the critic of pure literature. Literary criticism in its best sense deals with pure literature, with books the excellence of which gives them permanence. With books of the hour only, except as they illustrate the manners and taste of the time, the pure critics have little to do. They are under no obligation to judge the half thoughts of half authors, to measure the exact depth of writers who are not very deep, to say just how witty, wise, and eloquent certain tolerably witty, wise, and eloquent writers are. They deal, on the contrary, with minds which possess superior powers or which have produced unusual effects upon the world. A few books of the higher class from the pens of contemporaneous writers may now and then fall to the share of the newspaper reviewer, and by his treatment of these he may produce a good deal of effect. But most of the books will have no pretensions to be placed in this class; of those which do aspire to this rank, some will pretty nearly reach it; many more will fall far short of it. In what way should the newspaper critics write of the hooks which are placed on their tables ? and, especially, to what extent ought they in their judgments to consider the feelings of the authors ?
I have heard it said by some that inferior books should either not be reviewed at all, or that, if reviewed, only those things should be said which could be said in commendation of them. The first plan, to pass unnoticed books which to be reviewed justly must be reviewed adversely, is impracticable, because publishers and even authors wish that their books shall be noticed unfavorably rather than that they shall be overlooked, and because a great many books, either from their popularity or the popularity of their authors, or from some accidental reason, have such an importance that no newspaper can neglect them. The other plan, that of noticing the book and saying only Such things as may be said in praise of it, is practicable enough and often enough practiced, but is bad in almost every way. The effect upon the critic is bad. ft must not be forgotten that the critic has a soul as well as an author, that his integrity is in constant danger, that he has continual temptations to subterfuge,casuistry, and dishonorable compromise with many untoward circumstances which surround him. But no author appears to think that a critic has a soul or that it is a matter of the least consequence what becomes of it. He regards the flattery of his insincere reviewer with the tolerance that he extends to the crimes of the party which gives him an office, or the iniquities of a business from which he draws an income. An author may know that a critic is describing his book in phrases which are from the mouth rather than from the head or heart, and yet he will think him a pleasant fellow for his want of character. So long as his feelings are protected, he does not care to what condition the critic’s want of honesty may reduce his own mind.
A book review should aim to represent the book truthfully to the public. The wickedness of a lie consists not in using false language but in intending to produce a false impression. A critic may tell the truth in detail, that is, each particular statement made by him may be true, but if the effect of his review is to make people believe that to be a good book which is really a bad one, the publie has been deceived and the critic has been a deceiver. There is one tolerably valid plea to be urged in extenuation of the guilt of such a proceeding, that, the public has learned not to believe the reviewers and that nobody is fooled; but this is a consideration of which newspaper conductors, though they might recognize the force of it, would be likely to say as little as possible. I know there is a kind of book notice which “ tips the wink ” to the reader and seems to say, “ We must be careful not to wound the feelings of the author, who is a worthy person, but don’t buy the book.” This is no doubt innocent enough at times, but when such a method of treatment ceases to be a good-natured exception and becomes the habit of a writer, I doubt if it is wholesome. Besides, casuistry of this kind may lead to worse. For it is often hard to invent a phrase which is both true and kind, very hard sometimes when the printer is waiting for “ copy; ” and the writer is in danger of passing by those easy gradations which moralists describe from skillful and cautious euphemisms into downright fibbing.
That a critic should err rather on the side of appreciation than the want of it, that he should go through a hook on the lookout for excellences, appears to be of late a generally accepted notion. It seems to me that the critic should be on the lookout for neither faults nor excellences. Or perhaps I ought to say that he should be on the lookout for excellences, but not too strenuously. His aim should be to know the truth of the book. To toil through some book which you know all the while to be feeble, painfully searching for some indication of ability upon which to found a compliment, is an unwholesome occupation. It is the business of the author to impress the reader, and the critic is only a reader who has special reasons for knowing the truth of a book. When you go to hear an actor you do not consider yourself bound to inquire whether or no his performance is a good one; if he has ability, let him show it. The same requirement should be made of a book. And when a book is plainly “so-so” and nothing more, “ fairish,” “ rather good ” (which is often another name for “ rather bad ”), the critic should not be forced to probe and describe it, but should he permitted to dismiss it at once to the limbo of mediocrity to which it belongs. To be under the necessity of defining things not worth definition he feels to he hurtful to his usefulness and repugnant to his notion of truth. Of the extreme discomfort of it most reviewers must be aware. To throw a plummet-line deep enough for the sea into a frog pond, and to stand all day on the bank, dabbling the lead in the mud and wondering how deep it is, — few occupations could he more uncomfortable. The critic should say less rather than more than he means. This is the rule of art. Writers of a high order of literature in describing their deepest and happiest impressions of nature and mankind say always less than they mean rather than more, and it is certainly the rule of truth. Such words as “ true,” “ excellent,” “ beautiful,” are good enough to apply to Shakespeare; and yet there are scores of authors of the present time who will be satisfied with nothing short of them.
To write only what is good of a book is therefore bail for the critic; it is bad also for the public. It is often said that to write and bring out a book is a serious matter; that the author has worked hard upon it and is much interested in it; that it will, if a poor hook, be certain to die of itself very shortly; why, therefore, it is asked, wound the feelings of the author by letting him and the world know that he has been a fool for his pains? This view has a charity and an appearance of liberality which disposes one hearing it for the first time to accept it. But a little reflection shows one that it will not do. The critic is a literary educator, a professor of literature with a class which embraces the entire reading community. He is to instruct if he can; he is to judge fairly and to give “ his own to each,” but his main business is to stimulate the minds of people, to conduct a live conversation with the public concerning the books they are reading. People love to compare their opinions of the books they have read with those of one whom they imagine to know something. They will read a notice of a book they have read in preference to one of a book they have not read, and this seems to show that they wish sympathy and conversation rather than information from the critic. Their own ideas are perhaps uncertain and timidly held; and they are glad of thoughts which agree or disagree with their own, if these thoughts are put forward with zest and candor. Their opinions may be uncertain, but the likings of even the simplest readers are clear enough. Editors and publishers of newspapers may care very little for the books they write and print notices of, but the people who buy the books and sit up half the night to read them care a great deal. The critic has, therefore, what professors of literature very often have not, a class prepared to hear him gratefully and curiously. That he may really assist his audiences it is not so necessary that his opinions be absolutely just and true (they should of course be as just and true as he can make them) as that they should be eager, free, and candid. An incorrect opinion expressed zestfully will have a more lively and I believe a more profiting effect upon the reader than a correct one expressed timidly and with a glance around for fear that some one is hurt by it. I do not say that critics should be severe upon foolish books; indeed, I think they should not be; but I say that the taking into account the author’s feelings will be likely to impair the critic’s freedom and candor. The question is: shall the critic be free and useful, or shall he he insipid and inefficient; shall he speak his mind plainly and to the point, or shall he limit himself to timid euphemisms and communicate with the reader by innuendoes and implications; shall he be his own man, — as the phrase is, shall his foot be on his native heath, or shall he walk on eggs?
It is best, then, for the critic and the public that the feelings of authors shall be left out of the question by book reviewers; is it best for the authors themselves? If not, it is then only to be said that when the author’s interests are opposed to those of the public, it is the critic’s business to consider those of the public. Of course, the interests of the whole body of authors cannot be ultimately opposed to that kind of criticism which has the best effect upon the public mind. But uncivil things must be said of some authors, and the authors of whom they are said cannot be expected to like them. I doubt, though, if they hurt as much as they are supposed to do. An old foxhunter, speaking of the perfections of the chase as practiced in England, said that “he liked it, the horses liked it, the dogs liked it, and he’d be d—d if he didn’t believe the fox liked it.” I believe, though I offer the opinion with diffidence, that it is a matter of surprise to many authors that unfavorable printed comments on their books do not hurt them more. A man, tolerably sensitive to the ill opinion of acquaintance whispered privately from mouth to mouth, will find himself perusing with equanimity a column of ridicule and adverse comment concerning himself, spread out for all the world to read. At any rate, whether or no authors are angry with critics who oppose them, it will not be hard to prove that they ought not to be. It will not be hard to show that the critic who says that you are no poet is not so much your enemy as you think. To possess certain artistic gifts is very necessary to you; but your friend the critic cares little whether you have these gifts or not, likes you very well as you are, better, perhaps, than some people who have them. There is a surprise, a little shock, when your friend reviews your book, to find that all along he has been carrying about in his mind notions concerning your abilities very different from those you entertain yourself. You have had many long and friendly talks together; in some charming after-dinner hours of social talk or social silence you have come to like each other very much; and yet, deceitful wretch, the evidence of the printed page containing his comment upon your production discovers the fact that he does not think you a man man of genius. The fault is in your misconception of the nature of the impression which you make upon him. We are apt to think that men know us better than they do. Each knows so well his own history and feelings that he cannot entirely help thinking that he appears to another as he appears to himself. How little we who nod to each other in the street really know of each other! The essential facts of honesty and benevolence men are skilled to discern, because these facts concern themselves; but with regard to those peculiarities of mind which make us poets, artists, and the like, men are to each other as trees walking. You know your acquaintances as you know the states on the map in which the capitals only are given. You are certain that your friend is honest; you are certain that he is kind. Whether he is a genius or not you have never thought to ask; if he be one, very likely it is not for the qualities that make him a genius that you value him. In your moments of most intimate and agreeable talk do you discern in his countenance the feeling of nature, the gift of poesy, etc. ? Such gifts even as wit and sense, powers which have their place in conversation, though valuable, are not necessary in our friends. Some men we like for these qualities, and some men we like for the want of them. We like to meet one man because his talk is full of knowledge and acute observation. His amiable neighbor may never in his lifetime have achieved a profound thought or a graphic expression; yet the very vagueness of his mind is so mixed up with some spiritual charm familiar to us that we find ourselves liking him for the want of that which we value in another.
It is well for an author to have this thought before his mind. The reflection should at any rate induce critics to perceive that they are not really unkind in denying to an author gifts which they do not think he possesses. But a critic should be very cautious in the use of censure; he should blame only where he is certain he sees a fault. There is a state of culpable indolence which, when the mind of the reviewer is empty, finds vent in some facile slur or sneer, and this is often set down and printed for no better reason than that it has come into the reviewer’s head. Often the critic, determined to be original and superior, says a disparaging thing of which he thinks or hopes he is sure, but of which he is not in the least sure. Even the precaution of certainty will be of no avail with some critics; having never experienced the presence of the quality they cannot be conscious of the want of it. The old difference between those who know they are right and those who think they are right still remains, and this difference it is impossible to explain to the satisfaction of those who think they are right. The same difference exists among authors, as well. There must be cases in which author and critic come to a dead-lock. The author thinks the critic a fool, and the critic thinks the author an ass. Sometimes the author is right, and sometimes the critic, and each must take the chances.
In order that book criticisms should have the needed free and candid character, they should, as a rule, be anonymous. Book notices to which the writer’s name is signed are usually apologetic and deprecatory. They ask the author not to be offended. Even in critical journals which print only anonymous contributions, it is not difficult to pick out, from their timid and gentle manner, certain articles written by persons who know the authors of the books reviewed. A critic must have a very firm hand indeed who is able to treat an author he knows precisely as if he did not know him. He cannot help saying to himself, as he writes, “ How will he like this? ” “ Will he not hate me for that? ” He is much freer when the author is not a friend or acquaintance. Just as the President cuts off the head of a subordinate a thousand miles away with scarcely a thought that it is a real man whose head is coming off, and that to lose one’s head is quite as painful in Colorado as in the District of Columbia, so the critic finds it hard to think that for the author whose name on the title-page he has never before seen, there is somewhere walking about a person of like feelings and affections with himself. He is the freer for being ignorant of the author and for not having to take him and his feelings into account. The critic is at an even greater disadvantage if he is known to the public as well as to the author. Those foreign periodicals in which the names of the reviewers are appended to their articles are feebler than the anonymous ones. The reviewer addresses himself half to the reader and half to the author. He carries on an urbane confabulation with the author before the eyes of the public, something like the faetitious conversation of clergymen who sit together in the pulpit.
Indeed, the favoritism of reviewers to writers of their acquaintance is a difficulty in the way of candid criticism that it will be very difficult ever to get out of the way. It is the skeleton in the reviewer’s closet. There is not a critical journal in the world whose reviews are not influenced by the personal relations of the editors and reviewers with the authors. I do not see how it is to be mended, since authors and reviewers will know one another. But the evil, because it is nearly inevitable, is none the less an evil. If a critic be really in the habit of saying only pleasant things of his friends’ books, it is difficult to see how he can with any fairness write freely of anybody. For when about to try his wit and sense upon some stupid author, not known to him, he must, if he is fair, stop and ask, “ How can I say these things of this man, when, if I knew him, I should be certain not to say them? ”
One exception should be made to the rule that book reviews should be anonymous. A man with peculiar gifts of taste, judgment, and sympathy, who is also a person interesting and attractive to the public and well known to them, is perhaps the best of book reviewers. The public delights to converse with such a writer, and his name is of great use to the authors themselves. Laudari a viro laudato — to be praised by a man of reputation and consideration — every author likes. Such a critic, however, should not be obliged to notice books which do not interest him.
But in this country the main cause of the critic’s discomfort, the chief difficulty in the way of the discharge of his duty to the public and to himself, is the fact that the publisher is the patron of the newspapers. His advertisements are an important source of income to them; the newspapers therefore desire not to offend him. It has even come to pass that the publishers are supposed to exact notices in part payment for their patronage. There has grown up a notion that notices are given to advertisers something like a free lunch to bar customers, It is hard indeed to understand why an advertiser is not considered as paid by the insertion of his advertisement. The absurdity of the custom existing here is such as to suggest the idea that it is a reminiscence of a day when every town in the land was a village and every newspaper a country newspaper. Puffing must of course in the end defeat itself; and it is equally certain that the paper which is the most read by book buyers must in the end get the advertising. The time has quite come when this particular sort of immorality may cease. At this moment any great newspaper could without danger to its business stop the puffing of books ; with regard to puffs of real estate, railway and insurance companies, etc., I do not venture to express an opinion. The way of virtue is not always the way of profit. But I am sure that any strong paper could safely in its reviews ignore the fact of the publishers being its patrons. The important publishers (with some exceptions) really do not trouble the reviewers very much, because they are too busy, and because, alas, they have very little faith in the ability of the most eloquent reviewers to sell books. They have a cynical belief that there has been a diminution in the expressing power of words. Then the amour propre of a publisher, unlike that of an author, is general rather than particular. He prints many books and these books are reviewed by many papers. If a book is not well treated by one writer it will be by another; if a newspaper condemns one book it will make amends by praising another. The publisher thus “ strikes an average” and is tolerably content. The main annoyance to the reviewer is from smaller people who want a great deal for very little, and who succeed in this way in getting notice which according to the commercial idea belongs to the big houses. Though the publishers are not as anxious to have their books praised as they are thought to be, the conductors of newspapers hold that they are, and thus the result is quite as bad for the reviewer as if they were. A silent pressure is brought to bear upon the critic to be continually coquetting with the advertisers, to reward those who do advertise, to punish those who do not, and to invite those who are expected to. I say the pressure is a silent one; the reviewer is not told, or at any rate not frequently told, to do such and such things. On the contrary, he is said to have a carte blanche. But there are two sorts of carte blanche, a verbal and a moral carte blanche. The carte blanche I refer to says to the reviewer, “ You may do as you like, but ” — and there is an ominous reservation which he prudently construes to mean that it will be well for him to like to do what proprietors wish to have done. An advertising agent, professing to something more than common liberality, onee said to a reviewer, “ You pull one way and we pull another, and so between the two we get things about right.” Where one side has the money and the other side has none, it is easy to see which must pull to the most effect. The owners of a newspaper must control it and control it entirely. I have heard newspaper writers and other persons speak of an independent journalist, meaning thereby an editor independent of the owners of the paper for which he writes. There can be, of course, no such thing. One might as well speak of an independent coachman or an independent cook. You may not like to order your dinner, or to tell the coachman to take this or that road, but the cook and the coachman have their own way only so long as they cook what you like and drive you where you wish to go. The independence of a journalist is precisely of the same character., He may play for a while his little game of command, but he must in the end do as he is told to do by those who hire him. This is inevitably so of him, as it must be of any employee. If newspapers are to be better conducted, therefore, it is the owners who must reform them.
E. S. Nadal